The concept of 'natural' is at the core of a diverse array of anti-scientific sentiment, writes Clare Wilson.
Clare Wilson

New Scientist
1 Jun 2016 - 10:06 AM  UPDATED 1 Jun 2016 - 10:06 AM

Smarties are healthy, my children told me last week – because the packaging says the sweets contain no artificial colours or flavours. Their claims didn’t fly with me but I can’t blame them for trying. They have absorbed the Western world’s cultural obsession with all things “natural”.

Plenty of foods for adults also have packaging that proclaims their content to be au naturel. And numerous dietary trends tap into similar ideals, like clean eating, organic food and the Paleo diet, in which we are encouraged to emulate our Stone-Age ancestors.

The claims made for these foods and diets are debatable, to say the least. Indeed, the US Food and Drug Administration is currently engaged in a public consultation about which foods should be allowed to use the “natural” label.

It’s a messy issue and one the agency has been pushed to address after more than 50 lawsuits were brought by consumers angered by “all natural” claims on products. Expect drawn-out discussions about the status of colourings made from vegetables, the merits of fermentation over pasteurisation, and whether the thousands of crops irradiated to introduce desirable traits are GMOs. 

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The veneration of all things natural applies to far more than what we put in our mouths. The concept has many tentacles and is at the core of a diverse array of anti-scientific sentiment.

Many forms of alternative medicine, such as those on the worryingly popular Natural News website, are promoted on the basis that they are more natural than what’s on offer from mainstream doctors – as if that should be prioritised over whether they really work or are safe.

“The naturalistic fallacy is something you can indulge in from a position of prosperity“

The anti-vaccine movement is based on the belief that it is desirable for a child to get infected with measles because that’s how we would have encountered these microbes in nature. And the natural childbirth industry flourishes despite modern medicine transforming birth from something inherently dangerous to inherently safe. 

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The Green movement has done much good in raising awareness of the dangers of global warming, but it often falls into the trap of thinking that Mother Nature is always best.

Its blanket opposition to GM food makes no sense. We have been genetically modifying our crops for millennia; current GM food presents no threat to health and could help solve nutritional deficiencies. It’s vital to step back from using antibiotics in farming, but many people would not be alive today if not for modern agriculture.

These sentiments are partly a reaction to countless instances of bad behaviour by Big Food and Big Pharma. But we should be careful not to let the pendulum swing too far the other way. Our ancestors’ lives were difficult and short. As a woman, my natural fate would have been a continual struggle to feed a succession of children who may not have made it to adulthood – and that’s if I survived their births.

In some countries, that’s how things still are. In those places, people are crying out for the benefits of modern medicine and a modern food supply. “The naturalistic fallacy is something you can indulge in from a position of prosperity,” says Michael Fitzpatrick, a London-based writer and sceptic.

Given the choice, I’ll take modern medicine, a warm house and a full refrigerator. Those of us who live long and comfortable lives do so precisely because we have conquered nature. 

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This article was originally published in New Scientist© All Rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.